The streets of Mayfair have been deserted since before Christmas, save for the occasional hasty step or empty, crunchy parcels grazing the floor like inner-city tumbleweeds. Shut-up shops, some of which are still displaying festive orbs in their windows, are a stark reminder of the pandemic and its crippling effects on physical retail.
For this reason, the anticipation for April 12th, the day when non-essential stores such as department stores and hairdressers are allowed to reopen in England, is palpable. This is compounded for Browns, luxury retailer Farfetch’s five-decade-old fashion boutique.
It had planned to cut the tape at its new Mayfair flagship store in December, and it has been standing still, waiting for the all-clear since then. I came in to look around the store and the thought of trying clothes anywhere other than my bedroom makes me dizzy.
The new address at 39 Brook Street is just a two-minute walk from Brown’s original store on South Molton Street, where founders Joan and Sidney Burstein opened the New Bond Street boutique in 1970 to attract the Browns.
“South Molton Street is not like it was 20 or 30 years ago,” said chairman Holli Rogers of one of the reasons for moving. “You want a few like-minded businesses near you.” Those new neighbors include Issey Miyake and the immaculate, chic, chic Gabriela Hearst store, as well as Claridges and a number of other hotels that are about to open.
Rogers also wanted to be free of the “higgledy piggledy” layout of the previous store with small rooms connected by Escher-style stairs – not ideal for modernizing the so-called “customer journey” in the store.
The new, more open flagship store is located in a listed Georgian townhouse that previously housed interior decorating company Colefax & Fowler. The smell of fresh paint lingers, as does the building’s earlier life ghosts – marble fireplaces, Flemish art, and chintzy wallpaper – that contrast with “contemporary” materials like aluminum, stripped wood, and fluorescent lights.
Welcome from the street is the Focus room, where exclusive collaborations and emerging talent take place in homage to Brown’s history as advocates of young designers (the Bursteins were early supporters of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano). The opening installation is dedicated to Marine Serre, the lively French designer and one of Browns’ top performers.
The curation of women’s and men’s clothing is what Browns has always done best – team up younger designers with a slightly unexpected reworking of pieces from established houses. There are zigzag paneled sweatshirts from Ahluwalia and slim wide-leg pants from Kwaidan Editions, as well as quilted Burberry gilets and boxy denim shirts from Prada. There are accessories in neat storage compartments, every bag or shoe shines like a guest Celebrity places.
One of the most important parts of Brook Street’s business is the space for personal shopping and Very Important Customers (VICs), Browns’ top financiers. “It was the most critical part and one of the most important things we said at the beginning was that it was [VIC] The customer always looks first, ”says Rogers. These customers are served on the top floor. Three private suites are crushed with velvet, a dining area and a beauty salon.
That’s all well and good, but why is Browns, which is backed by a mostly online business, now investing in brick and mortar stores? The pandemic has accelerated the growth in digital sales. According to Bain, online purchases of luxury goods accounted for 23 percent in 2020, up from 12 percent in 2019.
According to Rogers, the new store is “a celebration of physical retail,” but by no means a traditional multi-brand boutique. It’s the latest manifestation of Farfetch’s Store of the Future, blending digital and physical experiences. (Chanel has also used elements of the concept in some of its stores.) In the jewelry department, next to each designer, there are QR codes that allow more stock to be available than before you.
In the Store mode of the Browns app, you can share your wish list with employees so that they know what you want to buy or recommend other products. There are interactive mirrors in the changing rooms that display the items on your wish-list and show how the items were designed, available sizes, and other complementary products.
Instead of calling items at a checkout, you get a click-to-buy link that you can use to check out in the store or at a later time and have the goods delivered to your home. You can also try on watches and sneakers virtually with the app (the former is a smoother experience than the latter), either in the shop or at home. It is planned to introduce this with jewelry as well.
“The future of retail is twofold,” said Sandrine Deveaux, executive vice president of future retail for Farfetch. “It’s about how physical space becomes more digital and how digital space then becomes more physical.”
Before my visit, I had added to my wishlist some items from the Browns website that the seller had put in a locker room for me as a preventative. This includes an off-white totême turtleneck and a khaki padded Marfa Stance coat, both of which would go well in my wardrobe. The other items aren’t in store but the seller informs me that they can either be ordered to try on or bought and delivered straight to my home. What’s a little annoying – that less than 10 percent of all Browns inventory is held on-site. However, Bernstein analyst Luca Solca says this is part of the new era of luxury shopping. “You have physical shopping in a real store and pure e-commerce in the extreme. And in between there are many different shades, ”says Solca.
This underscores the point that the store is less about traditional selling and more about having a physical reference point for Browns which is a cultural touchstone for luxury fashion in London. “One of the most important parts is the connection with people in physical space. Then hopefully they’ll have a little bit of Browns taken with them and go into the online space,” says Rogers.
Much of the physical retail industry these days aims to encourage customers to hang out rather than just shop. You have to sit in empty chairs. Art installations must be viewed. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors get people to take selfies. Browns has all of these quirks and more – they even have a restaurant on-site, Native. Arguably Brook Street’s greatest asset is the courtyard (which will serve food from April 12th), a rarity in Mayfair, where access to such rooms is generally restricted to those with membership cards.
Before the pandemic, I might have rolled my eyes at a store where I wanted to spend more than what was necessary. Now that they’ve been in a one-bedroom apartment for a year, the idea of hanging around between coat racks sounds like a great way to pass the time.
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